Automation to the rescue?

The RICS have just published Remit’s (Bob Thompson’s and Andrew Waller’s) research that they commissioned on how, let’s call it, automation might affect the (it sounds increasingly archaic) surveyor.  I may be being a bit unfair here – but there is a more than a hint of “the machines are coming to take your jobs and your fees” about it (“The burden of this risk is likely to fall disproportionately on…”).  To be fairer, the report is a bit more nuanced than this.

I’ve been waiting for this piece of research to come out for a while.  I’m a bit disappointed in it.  The research focuses on tasks and, recognising the risk of technological determinism, does set out different scenarios.  However, the 42 tasks examined seemed fairly broad (space management, manage leases etc.).  I would have expected to see these ‘tasks’ broken down and their production chain evaluated in more detail.  The result was that there was little detailed consideration of how the different components of often intricate production chains could be affected by automation and, therefore, any detailed insights into the different roles and tasks.  I suspect (hope) that there was much more analysis underpinning the findings that hasn’t been reported.

John Naughton wrote a really good piece recently on the importance of focussing on tasks rather than jobs and of the difficulties in predicting impacts of automation on jobs compared to tasks.  He sees the recent concern with AI, ML etc. as one of our regularly recurring bouts of automation anxiety (and I remember Right Space, Right Price back in the 1990s).

In the 1960s, a Presidential Commission in the US set up in response to one these automation panics concluded that “The basic fact is that technology eliminates jobs, not work”.  The key issue is whether automations substitutes or complements what workers can do.  If interested, you should read David Autor’s highly readable paper on the topic which discuss the often unexpected effects of automation.  Who would have thought that the number of bank tellers would rise after the introduction of ATMs?

If you look at something like property management, the scope of the job has tended to change as traditional tasks have become de-skilled.  As rent collection, service charge collection, record keeping, data collection, reporting etc.  have become more and more automated – and better quality –  new tasks have emerged.  It’s only in the last two decades that customer relationship management, sustainability practices, health and safety, and other have become standard in property management.

Where automation eliminates monotonous tasks and allows workers to switch to more fulfilling tasks, then it’s good news.  Clearly, there will be some losers but there’s also likely to be many winners.  We tend to be good at identifying the former and not so effective on the latter.  In the UK, we also tend to be pretty bad at managing the distributional effects of such economic changes.  Perhaps we should be celebrating the fact that it’s the mundane, routine functions are most likely to be automated and trying to work out how we ‘insure’ the losers?

Someone once said the institutions try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.  If the RICS is the solution, then maybe we do have a problem.


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